Why Tradition? (Part II of II)

In my previous post I addressed one connotation contained in the title of these two posts, “Why Tradition?” I gave there an explanation by way of the Life we experience in Holy Tradition. Here I will address the second connotation contained in the question titling this post, “Why Tradition?” That is to say, why make so much out of it? Here I give my defense of what it is we hold on to.

My defense begins and ends with the exact same answer given to the question in the first post: We hold on to Tradition because in it we have the Life Christ gives to his people. “Will you also leave?” our Lord asks us. And with Peter, we reply, “Where else can we go? You have the words of Life.”

But this answer does not satisfy my brothers and sisters who want only to hold on to certain parts of the Tradition and not the whole of it, or, more to the point, those who would reject the Tradition altogether. I will try to explain to these, then, why it is we hold on to the Tradition. From the outset, however, I recognize, as I noted in my previous post, that we do not speak the same language here. It’s not just the difference between the dialects of justice and rights and of mercy and grace. It is, indeed, more deep even than that. We traditionalists do not have a perspective that Tradition ought even be measured and weighed by us. Rather it measures and weighs us.

Our brothers and sisters who do not understand us fail to do so on this very point. They see Tradition as always reformable, always infected by sinful human tendencies, and therefore always to be viewed with suspicion. It is not Life to them, it is convention. For us, the symbols and metaphors of the Faith do not carry meaning because we believers invest them with meaning. No, they are symbols and metaphors only precisely because they carry the meaning of the reality they represent. To speak in the beloved pragmatic terms of our present-day American culture: symbols and metaphors only “work” because there is a reality there to which they are metaphysically anchored. If it were mere convention only that invested them with meaning, then there would be no reality for them to point to, and we would indeed be justified in changing them to suit our generational moods. It is this deep difference in ecclesial understanding that divides us. And so much of what I say, despite my best efforts, may still fail to translate for my brothers and sisters who find me and my “kind” the most unusual and incomprehensible of Christians.

It is already plain by now that one of the most immediate phenomena that divides us advocates of Holy Tradition from our reforming brothers and sisters is exactly that of our experience of Holy Tradition. We believe that God has revealed himself to us, and that he does not lie or contradict himself. Our reforming advocates want us to believe that when God spoke and denied to same sex attracted Israelites and early Christians the specific physical fulfillment of their sexual desires (to use one divisive issue plaguing us today), he either did not mean it, our fathers and mothers in the Faith did not understand what God meant, or he has now changed his mind.

Reforming Christians claim for their authority the same divine agent traditionalists do for theirs: the Holy Spirit. But this cannot be. If God did not mean his original proscription of same sex behavior, then this God whose word spoke the universe into existence, who himself is the Logos, the Word, is false to himself. This God is a god of empty words that mean nothing, a god who is untrue to himself, who contradicts himself, a liar god, a capricious god, and no god. This is not the God we traditionalists know.

Our reforming brothers and sisters, however, usually don’t go so far as to ascribe to God something like malicious capriciousness, rather they sometimes just simply claim that God has changed his mind. Maybe our ancestors did have it right, and maybe God did, indeed, mean to proscribe such behavior, and to keep women from the Eucharistic ministry. But now a new era of the Holy Spirit has arrived. The Church, one explanation goes, needed to mature, and now that we have done so, we have reached a point at which we are ready for these new practices never heard of before in the Church. Or at the very least we have grown past the immaturity of our ancestors in the Faith who were so mired in their sinful prejudices and cultural injustices that they mistook their own minds for the mind of God. But on what basis can we know these things? We surely cannot use God’s past revelations in Scripture and Church, since these cannot guide us any longer—at least not without our laborious unearthing of the “true meaning” hidden in underneath layers and layers of historico-grammatical context—tied up as they presumably are in all sorts of sinful humanness. It would appear that we would only know these things on the evidence of our own present experience. Yet isn’t this precisely what our ancestors in the Faith knew as well? And if our ancestors in the faith were so mired in their own prejudices, what guarantee have we that we are not mired in our own immaturity and biases? Who can say that this reforming impetus for same sex unions and women priests is not also some sinful human tendency? Might our sense of God’s justice simply be nothing more than our own cultural distortions? How would we know it’s not?

Most of the time, however, our reforming brothers and sisters focus on the assertion that the early Christians just got it wrong. They were no more immature or biased than are we, but we have the benefit of their history, and on the basis of our greater wisdom, we can with all humility and respect simply note they were wrong. But if our fathers and mothers in the Faith did not understand what God meant when he told them such behavior was proscribed, then we are in even worse shape. How can we trust them to have understood anything of fundamental importance in the Faith? If they cannot get something that is so fundamental to the modern Christian experience today right, how can we trust them on other fundamental issues? They are, we may postulate, perhaps wrong on women’s ordination. And our reforming brothers and sisters would heartily agree. But then they also may well be wrong on even more fundamental levels: the exclusivity of Jesus as the way to God (again more agreement from many), the fundamental ontological reality of sin and the necessity of repentance (which our more therapeutic minded ecclesial siblings would themselves heartily affirm), and we could add more. But if you take away the male priesthood, the exclusivity of Jesus as the way to God, sin and repentance, you do not have anything resembling Christianity.

Our reforming brothers and sisters would perhaps take some umbrage at that assertion. After all, they claim, some of these things are not essential to the Faith. We’re talking, they affirm, about Gospel essentials, not mere traditions. But we traditionalists know no such Faith that can be boiled down to bullet points. Our Faith is of one whole cloth. Our recitation of the Nicene Creed is not simply a list of the most important doctrinal points we must affirm. It is part and parcel of our daily lives as Christians. We light our vigil lamp and confess Jesus Christ as “Light from Light, Very God of Very God, begotten not made, of one essence with the Father.” We pour a glass of water for our child and confess “one baptism for the remission of sin.” We confess our sins to one another and embrace our spouses and thus proclaim that Christ “for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” We pay our bills because we confess “the Resurrection from the dead, and the life everlasting.” If you take away one part of Tradition, you chip away at the Faith which saves us, altering the very fabric of our day to day existence. Take away one part of our Holy Tradition, and you take away our life.

My reforming brothers and sisters doubtless do not grasp this, or grasping it do not believe it. But let’s take their assertion that our ancestors somehow just got it wrong. If this is so, if we can’t trust our ancestors in the faith, on what basis can we trust our present-day peers in the faith? If our ancestors have been so wrong, is it not at least possible that our peers are equally wrong? What if we end up trusting in a lie? Will that save us? If our ancestors were wrong and yet claimed to be right, on what basis can we evaluate the claims of our peers who claim they are right and our ancestors wrong?

We traditionalists are given no valid reason to think that we should abandon Holy Tradition. Everything else comes to a dead end. And really, since our experience of Tradition is that it is the place to go, to be and to do in which we encounter the Life that Christ Himself gives us, we have no desire to go anywhere else, believe anything else or do anything else. And sadly, we are the misunderstood, sometimes mocked, sometimes despised, and not infrequently persecuted siblings in the modern churches for it. But we will not leave our Lord, nor will we abandon our reforming brothers and sisters by ceasing to love and pray for them.

One thought on “Why Tradition? (Part II of II)

  1. “[S]ymbols and metaphors only ‘work’ because there is a reality there to which they are metaphysically anchored.”

    This statement reminds me of the Wine and Bread which become the Body and Blood of our Lord, and how the elements themselves are at once symbols – not in the Protestant sense of the word of course – yet metaphysically anchored to the Divine reality. Beautiful post, Cliff.

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